Evaluating Pakistan’s Offensives in Swat and FATA

Oct 31, 2011

In the past three years, Pakistani security forces have launched a number of operations against Pakistani Taliban militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as well as in the Swat Valley. Each one of these operations concluded with government pronouncements that the “miscreants” had been routed and the area secured. In almost all of these cases, however, the goals of the operations—primarily the maintenance of peace—remained elusive. Although militants were routed in the initial phase, their staying power afterward remained. While hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their villages as a result of the military operations, the Pakistani Taliban leadership remains alive and their support mechanisms intact.

To judge the success of these offensives, this article will discuss each major operation. It will explain the security situation before each offensive, and then provide an update as to what the security picture is today. This evaluation is especially critical in the context of U.S. demands on Pakistan to launch an offensive against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan Agency.

North and South Waziristan
Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan forced Pakistani security forces to help capture or kill fugitive al-Qa`ida and Taliban leaders in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that the state deployed more than 70,000 regular troops in the tribal areas.

One key area was the Waziristan region, which includes both North and South Waziristan, bordering the southeastern provinces of Afghanistan. Two major operations—al-Mizan and Zalzala—were conducted by Pakistani security forces between 2002 and 2008 in Waziristan against Pakistani Taliban commanders Nek Mohammad Wazir, Baitullah Mehsud and foreign fighters.[1] Both of the operations, however, ended in peace deals—the Shakai Agreement in March 2004 and the Sararogha Agreement in February 2005—which basically conceded more power and influence to militants in the region.[2] The benefit of the peace deals for Pakistan was that the militants agreed not to target the Pakistani state. Their cross-border activities in Afghanistan, however, continued.

In 2009, the United States placed increased pressure on Pakistan to launch an operation in North Waziristan Agency, specifically against the Haqqani network. Instead, the Pakistan Army began an operation in South Waziristan Agency against TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who was responsible for the majority of suicide and other attacks in FATA and Pakistani cities. The operation largely began on October 17, 2009, and was called Rah-e-Nijat.[3] Pakistan’s security forces claimed to inflict heavy casualties on South Waziristan’s militants, disrupting their command and control system.[4] Yet the top militant leadership, such as Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain and Wali Muhammad, managed to escape. The operation also displaced thousands of locals, and their homes were bulldozed. The majority of these refugees are still living in Dera Ismail Khan and other cities in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. They are reluctant to move back to their homes because of lack of shelter as well as fear of the Pakistani Taliban. Many civilians believe that the Pakistani Taliban is sheltering in neighboring Orakzai and Kurram agencies, and plan on returning to South Waziristan once the military relaxes its presence.

In North Waziristan, the well-known maliks (tribal elders) and their families have already migrated to Bannu District or other neighboring cities, while the lower middle class or poor families are still living in the agency. North Waziristan remains the stronghold of the Haqqani network, along with groups led by commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur and some small groups of Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs. Pakistan’s government and military have refused to conduct a military offensive in North Waziristan to date. It is widely accepted by outside observers that Pakistan views the Haqqani network as an important foreign policy asset, despite the group’s targeting of international and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

The Swat Valley
Swat, a scenic valley in northern Pakistan, is part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, known as the “settled”[5] areas of Pakistan. While the roots of militancy in Swat date back to the mid-1990s when hardline cleric Sufi Muhammad staged an uprising for the implementation of Shari`a in the valley, it was the actions of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, that brought a Pakistani security offensive.[6]

Using his illegal FM radio station, Maulana Fazlullah won the support of many civilians in Swat and staged a new uprising in 2006-2007. His men captured several villages, police stations, and government infrastructure. They banned women from markets, closed CD shops by force and proscribed music. These actions, combined with attacks on Pakistani security forces in the aftermath of the July 2007 Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident, forced the Pakistani government to launch a military operation against Maulana Fazlullah.

The first phase of Operation Rah-e-Haq began in November 2007. The army claimed to have killed scores of militants and to have dislodged them from their bases. Nevertheless, attacks on the security forces continued, causing the government to sign a peace agreement with Fazlullah in May 2008.

Tensions emerged again when Fazlullah’s men refused to lay down their arms and demanded the withdrawal of army troops from Swat as a pre-condition for respecting the May 2008 agreement.[7] This forced the Pakistan Army to launch the second phase of Operation Rah-e-Haq in July 2008.

While both operations disrupted the Pakistani Taliban’s operations, they failed to fully eliminate Fazlullah’s militia. Instead, the Pakistani Taliban emerged more powerful after each of the two operations. Both military assaults paralyzed civilian affairs in the valley and created negative effects on the local economy. The Taliban destroyed infrastructure in Swat, blowing up bridges and burning down school buildings. They also beheaded and shot to death dozens of locals on charges of spying. These actions severely disrupted the local population.[8]

In late 2008 and early 2009, Swat suffered the worst violence yet. In April 2009, militants captured the district headquarters in Mingora and marched into the neighboring district of Buner. This forced the Pakistan Army to launch a decisive operation, Rah-e-Rast, to dislodge the militants, who had moved their forces within 70 miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The army began the operation by evacuating the local population. Nearly 2.5 million people left the valley and were settled in camps as well as in houses with relatives and friends in other cities.

The army then bombed Taliban positions using heavy artillery, jets and helicopters. After softening their positions, the military moved in with ground forces. The army claimed to have killed hundreds of militants, and they declared victory in July 2009. Operation Rah-e-Rast was the most successful operation to date against militants in the sense that it effectively dislodged them from Swat, ensuring the return of displaced people back to their homes.

It was still not a complete success, however. The Taliban leadership once again escaped, while the local agricultural economy was destroyed by Taliban and army operations. The destruction of bridges and roads made it almost impossible for traders to harvest produce for several years.

Today, the army still occupies checkpoints in the valley, causing a nuisance to the local population. The Pakistani Taliban continue to launch occasional attacks, keeping the local population in constant fear of a return to the dreaded days of the past. Several key political and social figures have been assassinated. Additionally, the much-promised reconstruction process is far from satisfactory. Only a few dozen of the hundreds of schools and other buildings destroyed by the Taliban have been rebuilt.

Bajaur Agency
Bajaur Agency has been the stronghold of militant leaders such as Faqir Muhammad and Zia-ur-Rahman, both of whom are believed to maintain links with al-Qa`ida. To combat the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur, Pakistan’s security forces launched Operation Sherdil in August 2008. The operation forced thousands of civilians to flee the area and seek refuge in makeshift camps in other cities. The army declared success in February 2009, announcing that more than 1,000 militants had been killed.[9]

Yet militants continue to attack pro-government tribal elders, jirgas and lashkars despite the presence of army troops in the area. Unlike the situation in Swat, residents displaced from Bajaur have not moved back to their homes. The army has also imposed a ban on growing crops such as wheat and maize—since militants use the fields as cover during ambush operations or the placement of roadside bombs—causing financial losses to the civilian population. The government bulldozed hundreds of homes during the operation, yet it offered little, if any, compensation. This resulted in local resentment toward the government.

Today, security forces are deployed on key roads, while villagers are responsible for defending their local areas. The villagers are left with two options: either fight the Taliban, or cooperate with them. Those who fight the Taliban are often victim to their abuses, and the group has even kidnapped children of pro-government militia members as punishment.

Khyber Agency
Khyber Agency is the key route through which NATO supplies travel to Afghanistan from Pakistani ports. The militant group that operates in the area is Lashkar-i-Islam (LI), led by Mangal Bagh. A series of military offensives under the name Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem were conducted against LI in Bara sub-division of Khyber, an area adjoining the Pakistani city of Peshawar, in June 2008. Each operation resulted in long curfews, destruction of businesses, civilian buildings and a number of attacks on security forces and civilians. The militant leadership, however, always escaped unscathed.[10]

In the months after Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem, the militants again returned to the Bara area. Pakistan’s security forces responded with a series of smaller operations.[11] Since these operations, the Bara area has remained under curfew. The majority of locals opposing the militants have left the area, while many others have migrated to makeshift IDP camps. The militants and their commander, Mangal Bagh, have retreated to the mountainous Tirah Valley of the same agency where they are fighting the Zakhakhel tribe, which opposes the LI presence in the area.

Kurram Agency
Kurram is arguably the most important and strategic of the seven tribal agencies. Recent reports suggest that the Haqqani network has shifted from North Waziristan to Kurram. Besides Taliban activity, Kurram is also known for Shi`a-Sunni rivalries. It is home to the Thall-Parachinar highway that links Kurram to the rest of the country. The Shi`a, who mostly live in Upper Kurram, must travel on the highway to reach the rest of the country, and they have been blocked from doing so for years by the Sunni who predominate in Lower Kurram.

In July 2011, the military launched Operation Koh-e-Sufaid in response to an escalation of Taliban attacks on passenger vehicles along the highway, especially kidnap-for-ransom activities on Shi`a traveling the road. The primary goal of the operation was to open the main highway for travelers.[12] Numerous reports in Pakistani and foreign media, however, suggested that the motive was to help Haqqani network militants establish operations in Kurram to facilitate cross-border operations in Afghanistan. The fact that the operation took place in Central Kurram rather than Lower Kurram, where most Taliban activity is reported, fueled suspicion about Pakistan’s motives.[13]

The operation was declared a success on August 18, 2011. Yet the roads are still closed and the Shi`a population still cannot travel around the area without military escort.[14] The Taliban leadership, as well, escaped arrest in the operation.[15] Koh-e-Sufaid displaced thousands of families from their homes, and they are still living in IDP camps. Moreover, the IDP camp in Lower Kurram has barred entrance to journalists as well as aid workers, and media reports have speculated that Pakistan’s security agencies are housing anti-U.S., but pro-government, militant leaders in the camp so that they are shielded from U.S. drone strikes.[16]

Mohmand and Orakzai Agencies
In Mohmand and Orakzai agencies, the military has launched a number of small operations. These offensives have displaced families, who have been forced to move to IDP camps. Moreover, despite these operations, the security situation remains volatile. Militant leaders such as Abdul Wali (also known as Omar Khalid) in Mohmand and Noor Jamal (also known as Mullah Toofan) in Orakzai are still alive and present a security threat in those areas.

Conclusion
In the context of the United States pressuring Pakistan to launch a military operation against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, one must assess Pakistan’s previous results in conducting similar operations in other areas of FATA. One of the key concerns of civilians in FATA is how the militant leadership almost always escapes after every Pakistani military offensive. The pattern in all these offensives is success at dislodging militants from their positions temporarily, yet failure to implement any effective counterinsurgency strategy to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from regaining influence once the military operations wind down.

To achieve success, Pakistan’s military must focus on the militant leadership in future offensives. Failure to eliminate the militant leadership means that these fighters merely move to an adjoining territory, reorganize and continue their attacks when the offensive is declared a success. Pakistan’s government also must work to better address the needs and concerns of the local communities in FATA as well as in Swat. Its poor handling of the “rebuild” phase of these operations has alienated civilians and allowed for the Pakistani Taliban to maintain its influence. It is difficult to imagine that any offensive in North Waziristan will yield better results.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor with RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Besides working in Afghanistan as Editor at Pajhwok Afghan News from 2005-2008, Mr. Khattak worked with Pakistani English daily newspapers covering the situation in KP and FATA. He also worked for Sunday Times London and contributed articles to the Christian Science Monitor. In 2010, his paper on the situation in Swat, “The Battle for Pakistan: Swat Valley,” was published by the New America Foundation.

[1] Iqbal Khattak, “Deserted Town Shows Human Cost of Operation Zalzala,” Daily Times, May 20, 2008.

[2] Khadim Hussain, “Social Control in FATA,” Dawn, June 22, 2011.

[3] Zahid Hussain and Jeremy Page, “Taleban Militants Put Up Stern Resistance to South Waziristan Offensive,” The Times, October 19, 2009.

[4] Irfan Burki, Daud Khattak and Muhammad Anis, “Forces Close in on Srarogha,” The News International, October 29, 2009.

[5] In the Pakistani context, “settled areas” are where normal Pakistani laws are applied. The tribal areas, in contrast, are ruled under a different set of laws.

[6] Daud Khan Khattak, “Who is the Swat Taliban’s Commander?” The AfPak Channel, April 21, 2010.

[7] “Militants Pull Out of Talks in Swat,” Dawn, June 30, 2008.

[8] Daud Khattak, “Taliban’s Deadly ‘Justice’ Cows Pakistan,” Sunday Times, January 18, 2009.

[9] For details on this operation, see Sameer Lalwani, “The Pakistan Military’s Adaptation to Counterinsurgency in 2009,” CTC Sentinel 3:1 (2010).

[10] Daud Khattak, “Khyber Military Operation All Hype, No Substance,” Daily Times, June 30, 2008.

[11] Tauseef-ur-Rahman, “Pashto Names of Bara Operations Create Drama, and Doubts, Too,” The News International, December 7, 2009.

[12] “Operation Launched in Central Kurram,” Dawn, July 4, 2011.

[13] Mohammad Taqi, “The Sham Operation in Kurram,” Daily Times, July 7, 2011.

[14] As of October 31, 2011, however, reports suggested that the Thall-Parachinar had finally been reopened. For details, see “Parachinar Highway,” Dawn, October 31, 2011.

[15] Daud Khattak, “‘Clearing’ Kurram,” The AfPak Channel, August 25, 2011.

[16] Taqi.